Strangely enough, the 2012 presidential campaign, expected to be the dirtiest in modern memory, may end up being relatively clean.
That’s because both sides agree that the economy is the central issue and that sideshows like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright aren’t persuasive for voters. Karl Rove and Larry McCarthy, the creator of the infamous Willie Horton ad, think harsh personal attacks against President Barack Obama will backfire, and they’re offering more subtle messages of economic disappointment instead.
Even economic assaults can boomerang nowadays. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, an otherwise strong Obama supporter, dealt the Obama campaign a blow last weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when he said he was “nauseated” by an Obama ad lambasting Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital LLC. The president’s defense of the ad, in which he said “there are folks who do good work” in private equity, was too complicated to be effective.
The controversy surrounding the Bain ad and a proposed Wright ad from a super-PAC backed by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. (AMTD), suggests that when “paid media” in the presidential race ventures out-of- bounds, “free media” will exact a penalty. (House and Senate races are another story.)
We can still expect a misleading and overwhelmingly negative campaign, but the distortions and outright lies will be mostly about the candidates’ records and positions, not their race, religion and standing as patriotic Americans. I don’t mean to be pollyannaish, but that represents a step up from the gutter.
The days when Lyndon Johnson could use the infamous “daisy ad” to suggest Barry Goldwater wanted to blow up the world, or Vice President George H.W. Bush (and Al Gore before him) could exploit the racist Willie Horton story against Michael Dukakis, are over. In 2004, when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could easily smear John Kerry’s character by distorting his Navy service during the Vietnam War, you couldn’t yet use YouTube and blogs to rebut an ad and even organize a boycott of the sponsors within hours. If the Swift Boat attacks aired today, President George W. Bush would probably be forced to denounce them.
This sounds counterintuitive. After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the campaign system is awash in super- PACs and shadowy 501(c)(4)s (dubbed “spooky-PACs” by Stephen Colbert) that allow secret donations. Instead of clearly identifying the origin of the ad (“I’m Mitt Romney, and I approve this message”), the tag lines on the super-PAC ads are from gauzy-sounding outfits (“Restore Our Future”) that few people recognize. When it’s not clear who the attacker is, the old rule in politics that attack ads hurt the attacker as well as the target is rendered obsolete.